- Destiny and Desire: A Novel
- Random House, 432 pp.
So Far from God
A decapitated head washes ashore near the Mexican resort city of Acapulco. A young man, Josué, whose head it once was, uses this grisly episode to recount how he came to lose it. A more dramatic curtain raiser for a novel can scarcely be imagined.
Readers of Carlos Fuentes’ new novel, Destiny and Desire, should not, however, be surprised. This is Mexico, after all, where death and life walk together in ways that Anglo-speakers from “El Norte” often find difficult to fathom. By turns a meditation on history, a reworking of classical mythology and depiction of the growing social chaos of contemporary Mexico, Destiny and Desire is first and foremost a dialogue with the dead.
Hacked off by a machete in one of Mexico’s pitiless crime gang attacks, Josué’s head symbolizes the fates of thousands in recent years who have been murdered by the drug cartels and their hit squads, like the notorious “Los Zetas” whose numbers and firepower are reputed to match that of the Mexican armed forces. Josué’s head, ironically, is also a talisman for his life force. Before his soul ascends to eternal enlightenment – or oblivion – in the company of a black winged angel, Don Ezekiel, Josué is going to have the last word on his past and Mexico’s present.
Once he established the state of Josué’s physical destruction and his spiritual survival, Fuentes might well have chosen to have Josué narrate his life and death from a vantage point of clinical realism, a coroner’s inquest presided over by the spirit of the corpse. Instead, Fuentes opts for literary symbolism as his venue.
Fuentes’ choice is both a sensible and unfortunate one. Josué is dead, after all, so a cryptic and elusive approach to story-telling is not out of character. The intrusion of other spirits, who range from Niccolo Machiavelli to a matriarchal figure named Antigua Concepcion, add their own talking points to the story at various turns. Some of the prominent locations in the novel, like the vast underground prison, the Palacio Negro de San Juan de Aragon, function more as allegorical sites than realistic ones.
All these “otherworldly” elements add to the power of Destiny and Desire – or would, other things being equal. In the novel, Josué pairs off with a school friend to form a friendship of heart and soul, an intellectual quest and a coming of age kinship. Josué’s friend, Jericó, is a figure of mystery, an orphan son of unknown parents, as is Josué. Jericó protects Josué and inspires him to a future vision of great things for them both. Guided by a benevolent priest at their school, Father Filopater, who directs their studies toward the free-thinking 17th century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, the two young men appear headed for lives of achievement. Together, they will transcend the enigma of their births.
Just as Josué and Jericó are poised on the brink of manhood, Jericó announces that he is traveling to Europe to study on a scholarship. Josué is left alone, his life and the novel’s plot in a state of hiatus, until he can find his way to a new sense of himself, independent of Jericó. Josué ponders the new road of life he must now take, plagued by thoughts that he might lose his way – and Jericó his:
Did my friend Jericó understand this when he abandoned me so suddenly in search of a destiny he could separate from me, but even more, from himself?
Fuentes might well have pondered this a bit more, prior to sundering the relationship of Josué and Jericó. A cloud passes over their lives and ideals before they – or we, the readers – have gained adequate insight into who they truly are. The lack of any kind of knowledge about their births, family backgrounds, the sources of income that keep them fed and in school – these lacunae are essential to the course of the novel. But the way that Jericó separates himself from Josué leaves the novel in a state of limbo.
Nothing that follows in Destiny and Desire ever quite succeeds in filling the gaping wounds in the character development of Josué and Jericó. In a key passage, Josué declares that “I was an open book. Jericó was a message in code.”
In fact, Josué remains a blank canvas, affected more by the actions done to him, than by anything he does. Jericó, when he eventually returns, may have a “code” that governs his life. But the clues to deciphering whether his actions are governed by principles or by sheer opportunism remain beyond reach.
Not that Destiny and Desire lacks for drama or memorable characters. When Josué goes to law school after Jericó’s departure, he comes under the influence of a legal mastermind and political strategist named Don Antonio Sangines. Acting as Josué’s advisor, Sangines sends him to the sinister subterranean prison of San Juan de Aragon, where Josué is exposed to Mexico’s corrupt political underworld. Later, Josué becomes an aide to the shadowy media tycoon, Max Monroy, thanks to the string-pulling of Sangines. In the palatial surroundings of Monroy’s office tower, Josué sees the flip-side of the “New Mexico,” the Mexico of the “have” class who will do anything to keep from slipping back into “have-not” status of Old Mexico.
Jericó, meanwhile, has received an appointment – again at Sangines’ behest – to the staff of the president of Mexico, Valentin Pedro Carrera. A phony populist, Carrera’s only solution for Mexico’s gathering storm of poverty, drug trafficking and police corruption is a program of “bread and circuses.” Jericó is given the task of arranging a series of festivals to keep the minds of Mexico’s poor focused on the mirage of a better future.
Scenting an opportunity in Carrera’s crass disregard for Mexico’s masses, Jericó uses his status as a political insider to create a revolutionary insurgency to topple Mexico’s governing elite. With Jericó’s character still in shadow, his attempt at a coup remains inscrutable. Does he act because he sees the opportunity or because he believes in the need for revolution?
“The times of the hero are over,” he says repeatedly to Carrera, even as he plans to play the hero of a new Mexican revolution. When Josué confronts him over the folly of his plans, Jericó can only respond in platitudes or threats – exactly like the man he plans to overthrow.
“If you don’t want to hear the answer, don’t ask the question,” Jericó finally declares in exasperation.
This stand-off between former friends has all the elements of an epic tale of modern day Mexico. With Josué and Jerico personifying differing stances of social activism, the future of the nation is at stake. Action, unfortunately, is at a premium in Destiny and Desire. Instead of testing the ideals and inner strengths of Josué and Jericó, Fuentes relegates them to understudy roles in their own saga. The novel forges ahead under a head of rhetorical steam, without even a shred of narrative tension. Jericó’s eventual downfall is recounted at second-hand, a few throw-away sentences amid a sea of symbolism and introspection.
Fuentes’ evocation of human character in Destiny and Desire is decidedly bleak. Only Father Filopater, the free-thinking clergyman eventually forced out of the Roman Catholic priesthood, is a truly warm and appealing figure.
The female characters are a particularly unsympathetic lot. Ranging from the spinsterish caretaker who oversees the living quarters (and life) of the young Josué to the “spider woman,” Asunta Jordain, who stage manages Max Monroy’s media empire and toys with Josué’s sexual yearnings, the women in the novel function as archetypes of femininity in the Old and New Mexico. But creditable and fully-nuanced characters, there are not.
There is only one major female character who is in any way compelling. This is Lucha Zapata, a young woman with anarchistic aspirations whom Josué briefly befriends. Given that her name is the same as Emiliano Zapata’s, hero of the Mexican Revolution, Lucha may symbolize the “soldaderas”, the women soldiers of the revolutionary era. But she is also a helpless drug addict, hardly a figure worthy of the extraordinary cast of real women of courage and distinction who figure so prominently in Mexico’s history. We find no evocations in Fuentes’ often interminable reflections on Mexican history of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Dolores Jimenez y Muro, Hermila Galindo and Frida Kahlo, to name but a few Mexico’s notable women.
Fuentes’ anguish over the present-day misery and menacing future of Mexico is evident in this searing novel. Towards the end of the book, even Don Antonio Sangines, the sly political “fixer” without peer, admits defeat. He laments:
Today, Josué, the great drama of Mexico is that crime has replaced the state. Today the state dismantled by democracy cedes its power to crime supported by democracy… How long do you think Latin American democracy will last under these circumstances? How long will it take the dictatorships to return, applauded by the people?
These may well be valid observations. Fuentes, Mexico’s greatest contemporary writer and a former diplomat of stature, is uniquely positioned to speak with authority on his country’s troubling condition. But with “blank slate” characters like Josué, the question is who will listen to Sangines’ words. Who will act to combat Mexico’s descent into anarchy? Will help come from outside the nation, when inwardly those trained for leadership are so shallow and unfocused?
Josué dies, not with a resolve to dedicate himself to saving his country. He reaches Acapulco with a briefcase full of books on Machiavelli, the subject of his unfinished political thesis.
Destiny and Desire is a work of noble aspirations. But good intentions and often masterful literary skill cannot raise it beyond the status of a worthy effort. The besetting sins of Mexico’s “best and brightest,” arrogant intellectualism, followed by fatalism and despair, undermine its central characters and ultimately derail its impact.
Not for this Josué the promised land – nor for Mexico, still doomed to wander in the desert of its own destiny.